During the early 1930s, ambitious comedy producer Hal Roach, anxious to move away from the two-reel comedies for which he was famous, decided that his ticket to bigger and better things lay in feature-length, lavishly costumed adaptations of operettas. And yet the resulting, dramatically wobbly films, Fra Diavolo, Babes in Toyland, and The Bohemian Girl, would be forgotten today had not all three starred Laurel & Hardy. Republic Pictures founder Herbert J. Yates seemed to have similar ambitions throughout the 1940s, wanting to rise above his studio's usual output of B-Westerns and serials. During this time his biggest films tended to be historical costume melodramas, frequently set in the Old South. Likewise, few would be interested in these films today if not for the presence of their usual star, actor John Wayne.
Far more entertaining than it has any right to be, Lady from Louisiana (1941) is short on action but crammed with busy, costumed extras. As with many of Wayne's early post-Stagecoach roles, Lady from Louisiana doesn't quite know how to capitalize on his newfound stardom. (Note the second-rate treatment Duke gets in the poster below, despite his top-billing.) Here he plays a genial but determined Yankee lawyer cracking down on the Louisiana State Lottery Company. The film is less like a gussied-up Republic Western and more like a Warner Bros. gangster movie set in the Gay Nineties. Wayne's co-star Ona Munson, meanwhile, makes little impact while eating up a lot of screentime, but the picture is entertaining and involving, and there's an outrageous but lively blood-and-thunder flooding of New Orleans at the end.
Olive Films seems determined to get every last John Wayne-Republic Pictures movie out on Blu-ray by the end of the 2013 or so, and nearly all of these titles look fantastic in high-def. Lady from Louisiana is no exception.
The picture gets off to an amusing start. On a Mississippi riverboat, attorney John Reynolds (John Wayne) gives southern belle Julie Mirbeau (Ona Munson) a passionate kiss. Gazing into her eyes he asks, "What's your name?"
By the time the riverboat docks in New Orleans, the two are in love. O bitter irony. He's in town at the bequest of anti-lottery crusader Blanche Brunot (Helen Westley) while Julie happens to be the daughter of General Mirbeau (Henry Stephenson), who runs the lottery with the help of his mercenary lieutenant, conniving dandy Blackie Williams (Ray Middleton).
Julie, convinced her father's business operates entirely within the law, tries to persuade John to abandon the anti-lottery lobbyists for their side. A Mardi Gras drawing seems harmless enough, especially when John's personal friend, Gaston (Shimen Ruskin) wins a huge wad of cash. However, winners are whisked away by lottery toughs, who with threats of violence force winners to immediately pour all their winnings back into the gambling joints and whorehouses they control. Further, Blackie and his thugs force the city's small business owners to pay protection money, to buy scads of lottery tickets lest some unexpected "accident" occur.
Through it all, Julie remains stubbornly blind to the lottery company's real purpose, more so after Blackie has Julie's father murdered, which she blames on the anti-lottery league. Though still unaware of the company's association with gambling and prostitution, she personally begins bribing judges and other local officials to rule against John, now the City Attorney, purely out of spite.
Ona Munson - don't confuse her with Osa Massen, as I often did - is mainly remembered today for playing prostitute Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939), a picture this and other early â€˜40s Republic spectaculars obviously imitate. Her character, and Munson herself, doesn't come off well; Julie for refusing to acknowledge the obvious for most of the picture, Munson for lacking any screen chemistry with Wayne. Reportedly 38 years old at the time, in this high-def transfer Munson, her face etched with many lines, looks much older than her co-star.
(Spoilers) Interestingly, though her character is unbelievably naÃ¯ve about the lottery company's criminal activities, it's she who instigates, unsubtly, the mass bribing of local officials. What she does is clearly criminal, yet despite strict Hollywood Production Code rules to the contrary, she not only goes unpunished but even happily marries John for the fade-out.
Likewise, Blackie entertains these same officials at a whorehouse, in which he himself partakes while newly engaged to Julie. Usually in pre-1960 Hollywood movies there was some subtlety to this, with the prostitutes often identified as "dancers" or showgirls. Here, the movie makes no bones about it, more plainly than just about any Hollywood film from this era that I've ever seen. One sequence even has a hooker oh-so-obviously try to pick up the new-in-town John (Wayne. The lawyer in the movie.)
Eighteen-year-old actress-singer Dorothy Dandridge is in the film, but her small and racially stereotyped part as Julie's maid does her no great credit, though Dandridge is certainly beautiful. As with other Republic spectaculars, unfortunate racial stereotypes abound, the most embarrassing one here coming when Julie's black manservant is frightened by the voice of a telephone operator, which sends him screaming from the room in fright: "Dat debil machine done speak back to me!"
Despite this, Lady from Louisiana is pretty entertaining throughout. At the end comes that providential flood, with lightning bolts literally ripping apart the courthouse building where the climax is set, giving way to a more typically Republic-flavored final reel, with bursting levies and Wayne to the rescue aboard a riverboat.
Video & Audio
Lady from Louisiana looks great, and that makes even these lesser John Wayne vehicles all the more pleasurable a viewing experience than those earlier, murky home video versions. Indeed this is practically perfect in high-def. Reissue title elements are sourced. The Region A disc has decent audio, English only with no subtitle options, and no Extra Features.
Highly entertaining despite a weak female lead, Lady from Louisiana doesn't look like it's going to be a particularly entertaining John Wayne movie, but it is. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.